Several years ago, when Disciples were asked what they needed from their national and international ministries, transparency and accountability were recurring themes. At its July 2006 meeting, the Disciples’ General Board heard emphatic reports that congregations wanted ministries held accountable for supporting mission.

As a result, the denomination’s Mission Alignment Coordinating Council (MACC) has spent the last year figuring out how to better align the church’s structure with its mission. The first paragraph of its recent report states, “The process of mission alignment came as a response to calls from congregations for greater transparency in how Disciples coordinate our mission.”

In the September 2008 issue of DisciplesWorld, General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins wrote of the MACC process, “Most of all, we need to move forward in mission with new organizational transparency.”

We appreciate the work of the MACC. Their report (see story, p. 23) includes nine proposals for the General Board, and possibly the General Assembly, to consider. But the proposals seem to address accountability without increasing transparency.

Transparency is not the same as improved public relations, or even reporting. While informing people is part of transparency, it is not the sum total. At the heart of transparency is a belief that the church is healthiest and best served, and its members most engaged, when its inner workings are made visible. And transparency is not just making systems of operation visible through flow charts and updated bylaws. It is also opening up for observation the work of the people who operate those systems.

Transparency and accountability go hand-in-hand. Putting in place measures to create and protect transparency is the best way for church leaders to remain accountable to the 700,000 or so Disciples who pray for and financially support the work of the church.

So, what would transparency look like? In public life, transparency takes the form of open government meetings, open records, and access to information. Policies and legislation that assure and protect transparency improve accountability and make for a healthier society. In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we’d like to see concrete policies put in place by leaders who understand the relationship between transparency and accountability, and value the right of their constituents to be in the know.

Compared to a few years ago, when the Office of the General Minister and President’s budget was dangerously out of balance and Reconciliation Mission ran out of money, the urgency behind a call for transparency has lessened significantly. The furor over the National Benevolent Association’s 2004 bankruptcy has also subsided, as has our institutional memory of the role a lack of transparency played in that situation.

The best time for the church to have a substantive conversation about transparency is when things are going well — and right now, they appear to be. We’re making progress toward the goals set out in our 2020 Vision. We are weathering the global recession. And, as far as we know, there’s no elephant in the room.

Some say that most Disciples don’t care about the inner workings of the denomination, that discussions about church structure sound like an Abbott-and-Costello routine, with acronyms. If this is true, the argument goes, isn’t it best to let those who understand how things work go about their business, regulate themselves, and report back to us once or twice a year? Shouldn’t we just trust them?

Requesting transparency doesn’t mean we don’t trust our leaders. Transparency increases trust, as leaders demonstrate confidence and Disciples gain a better understanding of how their leaders function.

So how do we make transparency happen? For starters, we can discuss it seriously and ask the MACC to do likewise as it continues its work another year. We invite you to join a conversation on the DisciplesWorld blog: We can also establish open meeting policies for the church’s legislative bodies. DisciplesWorld is co-sponsoring a General Assembly resolution to that effect.

The time to take such steps is now. Let’s not wait until another crisis is upon us.